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Star Trek: The Lost Era – The Buried Age by Christopher L. Bennett (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode Encounter at Farpoint.

“I’m offering the chance to find something entirely new,” Picard teases at one point in The Buried Age. “To begin filling in a tremendous gap in our understanding of galactic history.” In a way, Picard might as well be addressing the reader, explaining one of the many joys of Christopher L. Bennett’s The Buried Age. It is a chance to delve into the world of Star Trek, exploring the lacuna that exists leading directly into Encounter at Farpoint.

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Pilots are interesting things. In television parlance, there’s a tendency to divide pilot episodes into two distinct groups. “Premise pilots” are pilots that set up the status quo of the television series. They bring the cast of characters together and feature some inciting incident that puts everything that follows in context. Then there is what is best described as “the other kind”, pilots that join the show in media res, as if the cast have always been together doing whatever it is they do. These shows are – at least on a storytelling level – very hard to discern from a regular episode of the show.

The original Star Trek did not have a premise pilot. Both The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before both began with the Enterprise crew going about their business as they normally might. There have been attempts to turn Where No Man Has Gone Before into something of a “premise” pilot – most notably David R. George III’s The Fire and the Rose argues that it’s the episode where Spock becomes Kirk’s best friend and first officer, thus setting up the show – but it was indistinct enough that the  episode could be easily shuffled in the eventual broadcast order.

In contrast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Emissary is most definitely a “premise” pilot. The team is brought together for the first time. The Cardassians withdraw from Bajor. The wormhole is discovered. The rules and premise of the show are firmly established. The same is true of Caretaker for Star Trek: Voyager or Broken Bow for Star Trek: Enterprise. However, Encounter at Farpoint is a somewhat different.

While it features the first mission of the Enterprise-D, exploring beyond Farpoint station, it isn’t driven by character. Riker, Geordi and the Crushers all come on board to Farpoint, but there’s no real exploration of how the crew came together. We have to wait until The Battle to get a sense of Picard’s personal history. Even then, the character’s personal history between the destruction of the Stargazer and his command of the Enterprise remains something of a mystery. The Buried Age is an attempt to explore that gap, filling in the gaps left in the origin story of the Enterprise-D and Jean-Luc Picard.

The universe created by Star Trek is quite impressive. Across over 700 hours of film and television, the franchise has plotted this incredible future history for mankind. It’s populated with major and minor figures, huge historical moments, an impossibly vast array of potentialities. Through various strand sewn in various episodes, a fan can chart a great expanse of the world inhabited by these characters and crews.

Gene Roddenberry and his writers did not set out to chart this potential future when they first wrote Star Trek. Indeed, the first season of Star Trek can’t seem to get its own internal continuity correct, let alone focus on laying the groundwork for an entire franchise to follow. The history of the Federation was grown and developed organically over time. A reference to the Eugenics Wars here; a mention of the Tomed Incident there; the tale of the Nerada III recounted at a staff briefing.

Naturally, these references create a tapestry of Star Trek history, a sense of scale and scope that makes the universe seem “lived in.” However, there are gaps. Most notably, there’s an impressive gap stretching from the end of the prelude of Star Trek: Generation straight through to the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Almost a century of fictional history separating Kirk and Picard that remains referenced primarily through dialogue or exposition in the grand tapestry of Star Trek.

Pocket Books’ The Lost Era is a series of novels intended to bridge that gap, to explore those nooks and crannies of the franchise’s fictitious history. Most of the books in the series were published between 2003 and 2004. However, the banner was briefly revived in 2007 and 2008. In 2008, Pocket Books published the Terok Nor trilogy, covering the occupation of Bajor by the Cardassians. However, in 2007, Christopher L. Bennett provided something of an epilogue to the series with the publication of The Buried Age. (It’s officially identified as “a tale of the Lost Era.”)

In a way, The Buried Age seems the logical conclusion to the whole Lost Era series. It tidies up the gap in Picard’s own person history running from the destruction of the Stargazer through to the start of Encounter at Farpoint. It is something of a post-script to these explorations of the history of Star Trek, finally smoothing over all the loose ends and connecting everything up. Fittingly, it’s a novel about archaeology and exploration – literally digging up the past. That certainly seems appropriate.

Bennett has a lot of experience with this sort of connective approach to Star Trek. He wrote Ex Machina, a novel set in the similarly “lost” era between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although the gap there was much shorter than the gap covered by The Lost Era, there’s still a sense that Bennett was bridging the gap between two very different types of Star Trek.

I’m always wary of novels devoted to closing perceived holes in chronology or continuity. There’s often a strange sense of obligation to them, as if the writer is being forced to go through the motions – trying to connect disparate threads of trivia that were never intended to come together. Bennett has a rare knack for this sort of storytelling, though. He has an understanding that character needs to be the primary drive of a story like this.

The driving force behind a 400-odd page novel can’t be references to obscure exposition or pieces of future history. They have to flow to and from character. The Buried Age is, in essence, a character study of Jean-Luc Picard – the main character from The Next Generation. While the story features references to all manner of obscure civilisations and continuity from across the franchise, it is built upon a character-driven gap.

The Buried Age isn’t a story about all the lost civilisations scattered across the Star Trek universe. Instead, it’s about exploring one of the mysteries of Picard’s character: what was Picard doing between the destruction of the Stargazer and Encounter at Farpoint? It’s a very clever, and intriguing question, and one that Bennett builds from a very astute observation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a man who not only lost his last starship, he faced a court martial for the destruction of the Stargazer. How did that man come to command the Federation flagship?

And The Buried Age works because it remains focused on Picard. Like many of the stronger Lost Era novels, The Buried Age realises that events in a fictitious universe are only as interesting as the characters caught up in them. And so The Buried Age follows Picard from the loss of the Stargazer through to his command of the USS Enterprise, offering us a bit of personal history to the rather remote and removed commanding officer.

Of course, Bennett also uses the opportunity to explore the world of The Next Generation. Set a century after the events of the classic Star Trek, The Next Generation was a very different animal – distinct from its predecessor, with its own unique perspective. Whereas Kirk was very much an action hero, and his Enterprise was patrolling the frontier, Picard was more of a diplomat tasked with maintaining the peace.

One of the stronger conflicts in the first couple of years of The Next Generation was the conflict between the show’s unique identity and its place within the legacy of Star Trek. McCoy appeared in Encounter at Farpoint. The Naked Now was an update of The Naked Time. Katherine Pulaski was added in the second season as a female version of Bones. Home Soil felt like an update of The Devil in the Dark, just as Unnatural Selection was a riff on The Deadly Years, and The Neutral Zone was Balance of Terror by way of Space Seed.

And yet there was also a sense that The Next Generation was struggling to come to terms with the burden of its pedigree. Ira Steven Behr had to fight to get to use the word “Spock” in Sarek. Roddenberry was initially reluctant to feature the Romulans and Klingons in the show. As a result, the show was slow to fill in details on what had happened in the gap between Kirk’s retirement and the launch of Picard’s Enterprise. It was a very tough balance for the series to strike, between becoming its own television show and satisfying fans who want conformation that it is still the same Star Trek.

Christopher L. Bennett works these anxieties into the plot of The Buried Age, as the Federation are tempted by the records of an ancient progenitor civilisation. Those records would provide an easy blueprint for the Federation to follow,t he solution to every problem, a formula for peace and prosperity:

For any given problem that would arise, you could find a solution or approach that worked for someone, somewhere in a very similar situation, and adapt it to your own needs. You could benefit from the experience of others’ trial and error rather than having to repeat the same mistakes.

That’s a nice summary of the temptation that must have been facing The Next Generation. All it had to do was simply tread the same old familiar ground; to play out the familiar Star Trek tropes and offer the same problems and solutions. (In fact, that’s pretty much exactly what The Naked Now actually did.)

At the same time, however appealing that approach might be – it would be a cheat. It would have been dishonest and disappointing. It would have felt tired and unoriginal, and it would have prevented The Next Generation from ever finding its own feet. Tapping into the formula that worked for its direct predecessor would be a short cut that would ultimately sabotage the show. Instead, the show needed to learn from its own mistakes, and discover its own solutions to its own unique problems.

After all, one of the recurring themes of The Buried Age is the way that Picard allows himself to become trapped in the past. First, he seeks to escape Starfleet by seeking refuge in the field of archaeological study. Then, he becomes fixated on rectifying a past wrong, on setting right what once went wrong. The Buried Age is a story about repeating failed patterns of history, and the need for innovation and originality – the need to favour the new over the old.

“It’s time, Giriaenn” Guinan wisely suggests at one point. “Time to stop waiting for the past to resolve itself and start looking towards the future.” The cancellation of the classic Star Trek in its third season was a tragedy and a loss, but turning The Next Generation into the fourth season of a cancelled show will not rectify that. Instead, The Next Generation needs to be its own thing. One character reflects, with a rather pointed title drop, “Maybe it’s right that every species eventually moves on and clears the stage for the next generation.”

And yet, Bennett also includes some measure of criticism in The Buried Age, some hint of dissatisfaction with some of the earlier episodes of The Next Generation, as Picard tries to argue that the ancient Manraloth have become too divorced from everyday reality, too aloof and too disconnected, to be able to resolve the universe’s problems:

“The Manraloth began much as you did! We have the knowledge of ancestors!”

“Abstract, musty tomes. You haven’t lived it. You’ve never known war, bigotry, strife, starvation at first hand. Your people bred those out of your galaxy before any of you were born.” He shook his head. “And I commend your ancestors for that triumph. But you are too far removed from them. Too old, tired and decadent. You have no answers for us.”

In a way, Picard could just as easily be criticising the stuff idealised humans that Gene Roddenberry championed during the early years of The Next Generation, humans so evolved and advanced that they were barely recognisable.

It is hard to invest in stories like Justice or Lonely Among Us or The Last Outpost because the cast are portrayed as so unequivocally evolved and correct. There’s no conflict, no challenge, no struggle, no strife. At times, it seemed like the cast of The Next Generation were so far beyond humanity that their experiences were practically abstract. There was no way to relate to their adventures and their problems, because they existed in a hyper-evolved reality that was impossible to imagine.

After all, the aliens featured in The Buried Age are very clearly stand-ins for Next Generation-era humanity. They are a species defined by their adaptability, their capacity to surpass themselves and to build bridges. Relating their history, it sounds like an abstract summary of the history of the Federation:

But then evolution produced a new adaptation: a species that had a special empath for others, that could bridge the gulf of understanding. By now, more habitable planets were mature enough to produce intelligence, and our ancestors were able to build the first true interstellar alliance in the galaxy, over six hundred million years ago.

This doesn’t sound too radically different from the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, which was predicated on the assumption that only humanity could truly build a bridge connecting various different alien races together.

At the same time, the Manrolath allow Bennett to question some of the potentially problematic aspects of the Federation as presented during The Next Generation. Like the Borg, the Manrolath are portrayed as an all-consuming species, one that seeks to subvert culture to its own sinister purpose. And they do so through talking. Through the art of diplomatic manipulation and subversive communication.

The Manrolath do not conquer with weapons or armies. They conquer with words and technology. Their modus operandi doesn’t seem too radically different from more cynical portrayals of the Federation, using “the ultimate weapon… one that wins you a new ally for every enemy it destroys. Conquest so subtle that no one even knows they’ve been conquered.” This is the same concern expressed by Eddington about the Federation in For the Uniform in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a rather grim mirror to the Federation presented in some of the earlier episodes of The Next Generation.

All of these are very clever observations, and fit quite well thematically with a novel set during the lead-in to Encounter at Farpoint. Bennett provides some effective foreshadowing of the concerns and insecurities that would bubble away in the background during the first two seasons of The Next Generation. As such, The Buried Age feels like a logical piece of connective tissue, as if setting the stage for what is to come.

Bennett is a pretty solid writer. As with Ex Machina, it’s clear that he really enjoys trying to tie together various threads of continuity. Here, he creates an entire monomyth for the history of the Star Trek universe, trying to provide rational explanations for the fact that there are so many insane non-corporeal beings wandering through the cosmos, or why body-swap technology seems to have been so popular among extinct civilisations. There’s some wonderful pattern recognition going on here, and a clever way of threading it all into a single over-arching history of Star Trek.

Bennett even has a bit of fun with personal relations. He brings Picard and Data together for the first time, and tries to account for why Data seems to have no real social skills despite living among humans for twenty years before The Next Generation started. “You have been living among humans and other species for twenty-two years now,” Picard observes. “So how is it that with all your ability for accumulating knowledge, you have learnt nothing about idiomatic speech?”

In fact, Bennett seems to even try to account for Data’s contradictory use of contraction in first season episodes like Datalore. “I’ve also been practicing a more informal speaking style,” Data suggests towards the end of the novel, as if to account for one of the more obvious continuity gaffs in the history of The Next Generation, where Data claims not be able to use contractions… and then uses contractions.

There are points when Bennett’s attempts to explain some of the early seasons’ more scattershot logic simply draws attention to the shoddy plotting – for example, Data’ lack of interest in his own origins in the two decades before Datalore. It’s a valid plot hole, but stopping to try to account for it just draws more attention to it. There are moments when Bennett does seem a little too self-aware for his own good. He staffs Picard’s missions with members of the franchise’s production staff – Vejar, Kolbe, Bowman, Westmore. We’re told that crewmen McCarthy and Jones have “disparate musical tastes.”

Similarly, references to Patrick Stewart’s other roles feel a little heavy-handed. “Likened to Scrooge and Ahab in the same morning?” Picard muses at one point. “That was a new record.” Similarly, Bennett’s foreshadowing of The Best of Both Worlds feels a little too on-the-nose. (“… he supposed there might not be any real harm in adding a few more cybernetic components here and there.”)

At the same time, Bennett does generally walk the line quite well. And it’s worth noting that the fast majority of Bennett’s attempts to mend or fix broken continuity work themselves out. For example, Bennett constructs an ingenious explanation for how the development of the Ferengi veered off so sharply following their introduction as a potential major adversary for the Federation in Encounter at Farpoint, The Last Outpost and The Battle – one that is quite easy to reconcile with their portrayal in Deep Space Nine, and which also accounts for the characterisation of Bok and his “blasphemous” disregard for core Ferengi values.

As it stands, Bennett has constructed a clever and insightful exploration of the gap leading directly to the start of The Next Generation, filling perhaps the last significant void in the Star Trek canon.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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